The Tale of Progressivism's Death Has Been Exaggerated

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Martin Halpern (halpern@hsu.edu) is Professor of History at Henderson State University, the author of Unions, Radicals, and Democratic Presidents: Seeking Social Change in the Twentieth Century, and a member of the steering committee of Historians against the War.

Five days before Richard Nixon’s inauguration in 1969, Laura Nyro sang “Save the Country” in her only network television appearance.  She ended, biographer Michelle Kort says, “with an almost screaming ‘NOW!!!!!’”  Nyro had composed the song in the wake of the June 1968 assassination of Bobby Kennedy and refers in the song to the loss of Martin Luther King, Jr. as well as Kennedy.  She sang:

We could build the dream with love
And I got fury in my soul
Fury's gonna take me to the glory goal
In my mind I can't study war no more
Save the people! Save the children! Save the country!

The events in the seven months between Nyro’s composing “Save the Country” and her appearance on national television included the Chicago police attacks on demonstrators at the Democratic National Convention and a presidential election that saw not only Richard Nixon’s victory but 9.9 million votes cast for George Wallace.  Nyro was not alone in wanting to keep the dream of peace, freedom, and equality alive, but it was a disheartening time for progressives. 

Rooted in the needs of their communities and sharing the desire of the majority of Americans that the war in Vietnam be ended, progressives soon regrouped.  Three days after Nyro’s appearance alongside Judy Collins and Stevie Wonder on the NBC-TV special showcasing the sounds of the sixties, ten to fifteen thousand protesters gathered in Washington, D.C. for three days of Counter-Inaugural activities, including a counter-inaugural ball, organized by the National Mobilization Committee to End the Vietnam War.  The dream was alive on October 15, 1969 when millions participated in the Vietnam Moratorium in hundreds of towns and campuses across the country and on November 15, 1969 when over a million gathered in protests in Washington, D.C. and San Francisco.

Nixon began to pull out U.S. troops from Vietnam in response to the protests but when he invaded Cambodia, campuses shut down across the country and forced him to retreat.  The nation’s dissatisfaction with Nixon’s policies was evident in the midterm election of 1970 when Democrats picked up a dozen seats in the House of Representatives.  By the end of that year Congress had voted to repeal the Tonkin Gulf Resolution. 

We are coming to another midterm election in which a different kind of protest movement, the Tea Party, has garnered the media’s attention.  When one recalls that the Tea Party protests began during the first weeks of the Obama administration and that its April 15, 2009 protests were sponsored by Fox News, it should be obvious that this is a movement to restore unrestrained white elite power, not a grass roots movement to “save the country” and the dream of peace, tolerance, and help for the needy.  

Will the Republicans’ financial advantage and the largely uncritical attention lavished on the well-funded Tea Party lead to a Democratic debacle in November?  Will the modest attempts of the Obama administration and the Democrats in Congress to respond to the needs of ordinary people and put some limits on elite power come to an end?  The polls right now show that Republicans are likely to win control of the House and to pick up several seats in the Senate.  Is there a movement brewing just below the surface that can lead to a different outcome? 

Progressives who mobilized to elect Obama in 2008 have been disappointed with the continued focus on war-making, the high unemployment rate, an education policy that blames teachers and favors charter schools, the weak oversight in the Gulf oil disaster, and the failures to include a public option in the health care reform, enact the Employee Free Choice Act, and end Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.  Should progressives focus on these shortcomings or on such Democratic accomplishments as ending the insurance companies’ ability to deny coverage due to pre-existing conditions, allowing children to stay on their parents’ health insurance through age twenty-five, the economic stimulus, financial regulations, the appointment of two women to the Supreme Court, and the proposal to end the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans?  Or should progressives instead focus on mobilizing independently on their own agenda? 

Laura Nyro’s message was to the grass roots.  Although the mainstream media gives it little attention, a grass roots groundswell is growing.  In June, fifteen to twenty thousand activists participated in the World Social Forum in Detroit.  As Julia Hollar points out, it was “at least twenty-five times larger” than the February Tea Party convention that “got all the media coverage.”

On Saturday, October 2, tens of thousands gathered in Washington, D.C., for the One Nation Working Together demonstration sponsored by the AFL-CIO and over one hundred fifty labor, women’s, civil rights, peace, environmental, religious, and community organizations.  They are marching to “Put America Back to Work and to Pull America Back Together” and to “reorder our national priorities so that investments in people come first.”

On Thursday, October 7, scores of student, educational, community, labor, and radical groups are sponsoring demonstrations in California and across the country to Defend Public Education against “budget cuts, tuition hikes, school closings, and right-wing reforms.”  Four days later, on Monday, October 11, Latin American solidarity and peace groups are organizing in cities around the country a National Day of Action to Confront U.S. Militarism in the Americas, close the School of the Americas, end the militarization of the U.S. Mexico-border, and reduce the military budget by 25 percent. 

Whether this grass roots upsurge will have a spillover effect on the midterms remains to be seen.  Many progressives are building for that day, too—knocking on doors for progressive candidates, contributing money, and turning out the vote because the balance in Congress has a significant effect on ordinary people’s lives.  But whatever the outcome on November 2, it seems likely that the wave of progressive people’s protests will continue cresting upward for some time to come.  Nyro’s dream of peace, of building the dream with love, of saving the children, is still alive.

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Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 10/10/2010

"The nation's dissatisfaction with Nixon's policies" was nowhere to be found in 1972, was it? Halpern doesn't seem to know anything about public attitudes toward Nixon. (You stole my thunder on this, Maarja!)

Maarja Krusten - 10/6/2010

Arnold, relax. Someone somewhere else in a forum for scholars made that argument as a whiny way to criticize Obama. It wasn't Dr. Spark, although she was a participant in the discussion. (I wasn't allowed by the PTB to join the conversation and just walked away, finally, leaving the group to argue on in its bubble.)

Again, it wasn't me, I don't get hung up on issues like that. A President can go to church or celebrate whatever he wants, its a free country. I brought it up of symptomatic of our age, where even scholars get drawn into petty arguments based not on researchable facts but what comes across as hyperventilating: ZOMG look what he did! (or didn't do!) Not a biggie. Except perhaps as a symptom of how people argue these days and perhaps a harbinger of how we may handle hardships and challenges (not well?) in the future. In my view, the Limbaugh style of discussing issuess has led to a big softening, one to which we need not all subscribe, however. Sorry if I didn't provide sufficient explanation, I certainly didn't mean to upset you.

Arnold Shcherban - 10/5/2010

<criticized Obama based on guesses about him, such as his not celebrating a Seder. A simply Google search would have revealed even to non-scholars that he had done so, beginning during the 2008 campaign.>

Why would you even mention this foolishness, plus trying to prove that Obama did celebrate Seder?!
How is it relevant to his policies and
his presidency, or to the article being discussed?
I'm getting sick in the stomach just
commenting on such religiously motivated crap...

Maarja Krusten - 10/5/2010

A word of advice to scholars on the right and the left. For readers such as I, exaggeration and hyperbole signal, “I got nuthin’” or a lack of confidence in supporting facts and foundational notions of one’s world view. It undermines what otherwise might be useful or thoughtful points. If you disagree with a particular writer’s approach or worldview, address his or her specific points. No need to go all “if they” and “they would.” Just because the political world operates that way is no reason for scholars to emulate that approach.

I believe in discernment because there is diversity of thought on the left as well as (still) on the right. Why do I say still for the right? Although I often criticize Rush Limbaugh for having sissified some of his conservative listeners, I don’t think all conservatives (which I once was but no longer am, having moved to the center as an Independent) have become big pity party crybabies with poor coping skills. Nor have they all put their manhood in a box and handed it to Limbaugh. It’s just that too many bullies and crybabies have seized the microphones outside government and tried to become models for conservatives. Fight back, don’t give in to that. Despite the harm to conservatism done by the Limbaughs and Krauthammers and the Jonah Goldbergs, there still is plenty of thoughtful commentary available from Frum, Bartlett, Brooks, Gerson. Conservatism has solid principles, it just has too many poor spokespeople these days.

This goes for HNN and other forums where conservatives gather. (I recently dropped out of one forum where some scholars criticized Obama based on guesses about him, such as his not celebrating a Seder. A simply Google search would have revealed even to non-scholars that he had done so, beginning during the 2008 campaign. When conservative scholars resort to guesses and feelings in their convos, rather than taking the time to research issues or (heavens forbid) read books about presidents, its time for me to wave buh-bye).

I firmly believe that fairness and willingness to face facts and use data in arguments wins more points than pity parties.

See also my comments on Vietnam to the author of this essay.

Maarja Krusten - 10/5/2010

Dr. Halpern, I find your account of Richard Nixon’s actions and public reactions to them to be far too simplistic. I say that as someone who worked as an employee of the U.S. National Archives for 14 years to determine what you could see and listen to of the secret Nixon textual records and White House tapes. Some of that material has been released to the public since then and scholars such as Jeffrey Kimball and David Kaiser have used it to write effectively about Vietnam--its military, diplomatic, and political aspects. Moreover, the State Department has drawn on some of the records we marked for public disclosure to include in its Foreign Relations of the United States series.

Why not draw on some of that in making whatever points you wish to make here? Or the largely unexamined public opinion mail at NARA’s Nixon Presidential Library (mine among it – as a college student in Washington, DC, I supported President Nixon’s Vietnam policies although I later came to question some of the premises of U.S. actions then). I don’t have time to get into all the details, but the archival records of Nixon’s own actions, the reasons for them, and the public’s reactions to them are much more nuanced than you suggest. To the discerning eye, the public mail shows a wide range of reactions. And, of course, Nixon won the 1972 election in a landslide, some 60% of the popular vote and 520 electoral votes to his (anti-war opponent’s) 17 electoral votes. That victory, in and of itself, suggests that something is missing from your account of that time period.

See also my reaction to Clare Spark's comment, above.

Arnold Shcherban - 10/4/2010

9/11, Oy vei! Two thousands Americans died - the end of "the world"!
Other nations experienced hundreds 9/11s in one fell swoop, and didn't call it "the world has changed forever", which translated from Orwelian language to plain English meant just the dawn of the new era of Yankee violence/aggression towards other nations accompanied by the joyful cheers of military-industrial complex/corporations.
That incessant shameless and hypocritical exploitation of 9/11 events by the US/UK-above-all ideologues and politicians have already made hundreds of millions around the world puke out of disgust and hundreds of thousands killed by the NATO forces of "democracy and freedom", two countries destroyed, desolated, and continue to do so unabated.
(Not mentioning already so-called anti-terrorist US Army deadly operations in many other countries around the world, accompanied, like in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, with war crimes and other less severe violations of international laws, which are deemed subordinate to the executive orders of the Superpower Presidents - basically being spit on by the greatest country of Law.)
Iran, that had been repeatedly sanctioned just on mere suspicion (tell me about the American Law once more) without a shred of solid evidence is about to become the next victim of American/Israeli aggression.
Oh, that 9/11 Apocalypse...

Arnold Shcherban - 10/4/2010

Well said, Mr. Furtado.

Clare Spark - 10/4/2010

Is there no statist initiative that the PC reformers will not support? If they had any intellectual honesty, they would lay out competing theories of social well-being: one based on redistributionist justice, the other based on commutative justice. But no, they have to claim all virtue and love for themselves and demonize the competing [faux] grass roots movement.

Michael Furtado - 10/4/2010

I can and do believe earnestly that improvement of the human condition for our communities - and for all of humanity eventually - should be the central goal of all government. Whether a 'perfect' society of universal peace, justice and brotherhood is ever achieved (or can be achieved) is irrelevant.
Do you suggest, Mr. Beatty, that because we can't achieve perfection we should simply stop trying to improve society and just let things stay as they are?
Perhaps that is the central difference between Progressives/Liberals and Conservatives. The latter believe that the current state of society is just fine, but needs to be 'tinkered with' a bit to foster the success of the 'best' of humanity. The former know that society is not perfect and try to improve it for the good of all people.
I am proud to be a Liberal/Progressive.

John D. Beatty - 10/4/2010

You cannot earnestly believe that universal peace, "justice" and fraterity is achievable. If 9/11 taught us anything at all, it is that there are those who want everyone dead who does not think their way, and as long as there are those people, your goal is not only unachievable it is laughable.